Susan Choi’s new novel Trust Exercise, a National Book Award Finalist, is a brilliant, inventive, and deeply thought-provoking exploration of the ways in which we tell our stories and the inherent tensions between individual and collective experience. Set in a performing arts high school, the story begins with Sarah and David, two young students whose romantic relationship unfolds under the scrutiny of their classmates and their charismatic acting teacher, Mr. Kingsley. Because of the nature of the story, I hesitate to share anything more about the plot: the reading is a trust exercise in and of itself, and to know too much at the outset is almost to betray the trust that the novel inherently asks of us.
As a longtime lover of Choi’s work, I read Trust Exercise soon after its release. Already there had been a great deal of discussion and excitement about the book: early reviews hinted at its daring formal, structural, and thematic departures both from Choi’s previous work and from the literary novel as we know it. I avoided further reviews in case of spoilers, and the reading experience exceeded all of my (very high) expectations. The novel expertly immerses us in a dynamic cast of characters with an ever-changing lens on their stories, surprising us at every turn and ultimately leaving us with big questions about the complexities of subjective experience and the inevitable omissions from any given story.
Trust Exercise is Choi’s fifth novel. She has won the Asian-American Literary Award for fiction, the Pen.W.G. Sebald Award, and a Lammy Award. Her novels have been named as finalists for both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, she teaches fiction writing at Yale and lives in Brooklyn. I had the pleasure of speaking with Choi just after Trust Exercise was short-listed for the National Book Award, and we discussed her unusual writing process, her feelings about her own adolescence, and her thoughts on relationships, power dynamics, and the nature of memory.
First of all, congratulations on being shortlisted for the National Book Award! How did you find out about the nomination?
Thank you so much! When I found out about the long list, I was swimming at the pool and I got out and checked my phone and I had all these congratulatory texts, but I wasn’t sure at first what they pertained to. All I saw was a bunch of texts with the confetti emoji! But I had a feeling, because a former student of mine had emailed me the night before and said something like, “I just thought I’d email you now before you think the only reason I’m emailing you is because you made the NBA long list.” I hadn’t even known the list was going to be released the next day, so I thought, “Damnit, I didn’t want to have to worry about that!” By the time I got out of the pool it had been announced, which was wonderful.
The short list was a little different, but again people were saying, “The short list is going to be announced,” and I kind of blocked my ears – I was literally saying, “Don’t tell me; I don’t want to know!” So again, I was in a state of blissful ignorance, and then my mother emailed and said, “The short list is being released tomorrow – do you know yet whether or not you’re on it?” And while I was scolding her about reminding me, I missed a phone call from the National Book Foundation. I didn’t see the message until that night, and the voicemail was just, “Can you call us?” When I called back, Lisa Lucas was on the phone with another finalist, and when she called me back it was about thirty minutes before they were going live with the announcement. It was wonderful – really delightful.
Well, it is very well deserved. We are so excited for you! I got to see you speak at the Brooklyn Book Festival with Meg Wolitzer, and you mentioned in that talk that you started with the title of Trust Exercise, which you had never done before.
I’m normally really bad at titling my books. With almost all of my other books, the title was wrested out of the material after it was long underway. With this, the title was there from the very beginning, but I didn’t think I was writing a book; I thought I was writing something much shorter.
Was there a specific point when you realized it was not going to be a short story?
Yes, very early on. I have written very few successful short stories in my entire career. I don’t think I have what it takes to make structure work at that level. I think it’s much more difficult to write short fiction than long fiction. In long fiction, there’s a lot of room to kind of flounder around, and with short fiction there’s much more rigor and discipline required. So it was evident to me around page 15 that this was not going to be a short story.
How much did the title guide your process? The concept of the trust exercise is such a significant part of the book; was it in your mind a lot as you were writing or was it more of a subconscious idea?
It wasn’t in my mind consciously. I was sort of surprised in the best possible way by how many different meanings the title ultimately took on, because that’s the kind of thing that only really happens if it’s unplanned. So I wasn’t thinking, “How can I explore this idea of the trust exercise?” It was really just the label that I’d stuck on this file. And even until very late in the process, after the entire manuscript was complete, I didn’t really know how the title would interact with the book. The manuscript was in three parts, and when we were getting ready to submit it my agent asked, “What do you want to call these three parts?” It didn’t make sense to call them “Parts One, Two, and Three,” because of the way the book works, so my agent said, “Let’s just call each section ‘Trust Exercise.’” It was such a great idea, and I’m so indebted to her. It’s not the first time my agent has essentially figured out how to put that finishing gloss on a manuscript. A previous agent of mine even titled one of my books for me, so I often need help with that stage.
Titles are so hard! So did you ever have any other sections, or was it always those three?
There were other sections. First of all, it was never a multi-part book until it was. And I had essentially abandoned the writing of it after a certain point because I was working on something else. So I was always writing into the “Trust Exercise” file just for fun, without even thinking, “What should happen?” I kind of pursued the storyline as far as felt doable, and then I just set it down and worked on my other project.
When I came back to what turned into Trust Exercise it was because the second part just occurred to me one day. I just thought, “What if this happened?” At that point I realized that I had something that consisted of these two discreet parts, and that’s when the struggle began: to actually complete this as a real project. Up until then I was just playing around with it and adding to it. At that point I thought I had to write a third part, and I wrote four versions of the third part before I settled on the right one.
So when did you decide to pull your focus away from the other novel you were working on and treat this as your primary project?
I think it was when I was done with the second part. When I started the second part it was pure fun, and I can’t remember exactly where I was with the other draft. I know it sounds strange because it’s like a 400-page novel that will probably never see the light of day, at least in its current form. I was just talking to my agent about it the other night. We had dinner, and she still remembers that project really vividly. She read it three years ago and said, “This is not quite what it wants to be.” And so the other night we were discussing what it does want to be, and it’s not clear yet.
So I don’t really remember when it was that I started writing the second part of Trust Exercise, except that I was still very involved in the other project. Part Two was sort of a mischievous escape from responsibility, where I was like, “I’m just going to do this instead for a little while. I promise I’ll go back to the real thing!” So I had a ton of fun with it. And Trust Exercise as a burden of obligation didn’t start pressing down on me until I finished the second part and then realized I had to finish the book, and I didn’t know quite how to do that.
Do you think this process changed your feelings at all about what type of projects you would consider to be fun or indulgent as opposed to more serious?
I hope it hasn’t spoiled my ability to just write without a lot of self-conscious premeditation. I’ve never written a book in this half-attentive way, and I feel like it’s a trick that you can’t really do again. You can only accidentally do something once. But it’s been cheering in a way, because I realized that even though writing can feel very haphazard a lot of the time, sometimes things are working themselves out on a level you’re not aware of, and I think that is ultimately encouraging. It gives me hope for the other project, that maybe it will resurrect itself in some way.
So we enter the story through Sarah and David’s romance, and then we go on to meet their classmates at a performing arts high school. I’ve heard you say in previous interviews that you went to a performing arts high school yourself. How was it to revisit that time in your life and to get back into the teenage mindset? You do it so well.
Interestingly, it didn’t feel like revisiting. It didn’t feel like a lot of travel was involved, and for a long time I didn’t think of it as “the teenage mindset.” The characters were very present to me, and I never really worried that I wasn’t depicting this mentality correctly. I never thought, “Am I getting this right?” I didn’t think of it as a discreet experience that I had to access. And in terms of the high school, fiction for me often involves starting with a kernel of experience and then going to the darkest possible dark side of it that you can imagine. I find that to be a lot of fun. I’ve done it in other projects and I think that was a similar exercise here. I had a really good time in high school, so it was fun to kind of explore the upside-down underbelly of what that experience might have been at its worst.
When you’re that age, everything feels so intense and so life-and-death. You said you didn’t consciously enter that adolescent mentality, but do you think simply writing from characters that age informed the way you were thinking about the story or the relationships?
I think mainly it made me think about all the ways in which that time of our lives is still really present, even years or decades later. All of the layers of experience that we accumulate are surprisingly transparent. Adolescence doesn’t feel remote to me at all; it feels as if a lot of what makes me who I am got formed at that time. It still feels so vivid to me that I kept having to remind myself, “That was decades ago!” And is there a subsequent period of life that made as much of an impact psychically and emotionally? I think there must be; there have been all sorts of periods of my life since then, like right after I had my first child, that have been very transformative. There are those periods that change the way you see everything, but those years when I was a teenager and figuring out who I was are right there.
I wonder if it’s because adolescence is the first time in your life when you go through such a major transformation.
Yes – you’re beginning to be the adult that you remain, so I think it’s much more memorable for that reason. Whereas there are all these other periods of my twenties where I wonder, what was I ever thinking? I have no idea. It was much less memorable.
That is so interesting. The whole book has this sense of very juicy suspense and urgency to it, but I also really appreciated how deeply the characters were developed and the nuances of their relationships were very clear and alive. So I’m curious, with this book and also in general, how you go about balancing the momentum of the plot with characterization. Or does it unfold more subconsciously?
I think characterization usually comes first, and it’s something that is very hard for me to fix if it’s not going well. So if something I’m writing is built to last, it’s because the characters are working in an almost magical way, whereas plot momentum is something that can always be repaired. I can always go back and look at pacing or ways to tighten the sequence or clarify causality, but that usually comes later and requires tinkering. But characterization is something that’s either there or it’s not.
That makes sense. I don’t think it gives anything away to say that the book deals a lot with who gets to tell certain stories and who gets left out of those tellings. I’m curious if you came away with any ideas about why we often remember certain experiences so differently than other people who were there for the same events.
I think it’s a really fascinating thing. I sometimes wish I had been a cognitive scientist, because the mind works in such interesting ways, and all the metaphors we have for understanding our own minds are so flawed. In some ways we imagine that memory is kind of a digital recording – we think, “I was there with my eyes open, so that experience must have just poured itself into my brain,” but that’s not how memory works. What we retain or what matters to us is so individualized that I’m no longer surprised at all by the ways in which my memory of an event I shared with someone will completely diverge from their memory of it. It’s really interesting and I think it has to do with what we value and who we are. Everything is subjective. It’s very difficult to arrive at a consensus.
Definitely. I think about it with my own childhood; I have a brother, and we sometimes remember such different versions of the same events. It always makes me wonder if my memory is subconsciously rewriting those experiences in a certain way or if that is just how all memory works – if our minds are always picking and choosing different things to remember without us realizing it.
Absolutely. And even the ways in which we form narratives about our lives and our families. I’ve had times when I had certain narratives in my mind about my parents’ lives, and then when I relate that information back to them they’ll say, “That’s not what I told you,” or “That’s not true.” So the story has somehow taken a different form in my mind.
So the book deals with a lot of gray areas in various types of relationships: friendships, couples, and the relationships between these teenage students and their teachers. Did you set out to explore those gray areas, or did that theme emerge more naturally?
I think it was a little bit of both. When I started writing this material, one of the things I was interested in was the role of the teacher, and the ways in which that teacher would impact this relationship between the two students. So I was already interested in that kind of power dynamic. But the ways in which that ended up being explored elsewhere in the book mostly evolved of their own accord. Part Two sort of spooled out without my consciously thinking about how Karen’s experience would be a parallel case to the other experiences in Part One. I think when writing is going well, those connections are being made beneath the surface, and as the writer you’re not necessarily aware of the fact that things are thematically knitting together.
I think the student-teacher power dynamic is often different within creative fields – in this case, acting. The students are being taught to draw on very intimate experiences and emotions for the sake of their art. There’s that great scene toward the beginning of the book when Mr. Kingsley is having the students crawl around and physically collide with each other in the dark, and he keeps telling them to “open themselves up.”
Right – and not to have borders or boundaries. It’s very contradictory, because they are supposed to discipline themselves to be loose and free. It is interesting to look at teacher-student dynamics within those creative worlds in which a lot of value is placed on non-conformity. There is sort of an implicit scorn for convention, and so those relationships can often take place in this space where everyone feels like the rules shouldn’t apply, or that the rules are constricting or anti-creative. Taking self-protective measures gets mistaken for being anti-creative and, especially for these very young people who are inexperienced, that can be devastating.
I wondered how much the political climate with #MeToo played into your decision to tell this story now. Much of the book deals with these young female students’ relationship with Mr. Kingsley, their older male teacher whom they idolize.
It’s so interesting, because this book largely took shape before #MeToo became what it is now. We know that the hashtag was in use prior to the fall of ’17, but these stories about inappropriate or abusive or exploitative relationships, often in a teacher-student setting, have been in the headlines for years and years. And often they are discussed way after the fact, because of how difficult it is to even recognize them at the time they’re happening, let alone talk about them. I think it all accumulated to the point of forming this bottleneck, where people realized we really needed to talk about this as a society. By that fall of ’17 I had already completed the novel’s first draft, but I ended up replacing that final section. I wasn’t happy with it anyway, and a lot of the conversation taking place at that time seemed almost to be drawing out these themes that were already there in the book. So it helped me bring the book into focus in a new way in those final pages.
I’m curious about what kinds of things you read while you’re in the middle of a project. In this case it sounds like you weren’t consciously setting out to write an unconventional book, but when you’re working on any specific type of project, do you tend to look at other works or authors who have done similar things? Or is it easier for you to avoid other work that is too similar to your own?
That’s a great question. My reading life and my writing life are totally intertwined, but not consciously. Unless I’m doing research, I’m not really reading to support my writing in a specific way. I never know what reading of mine is going to end up being really important to whatever I’m working on. So on my reading track, I’m just thinking, “I feel like reading this or that,” and the writing track is making use of that reading, but in a way that is often unconscious. After I had finished a draft of this book, people asked me about influences. I started thinking about it, and the harder I thought, the more I realized, “That book I read seven years ago was somehow on my mind,” or “Maybe I was influenced by that book I didn’t even remember until just now.”
On that note, what are you reading now, and what have you loved lately?
Right now I’m reading The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, which I’m really enjoying. I also got to read the galley for Jenny Offill’s new novel, which was wonderful. I’ve read so many great books this year. I read a book called War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans, which I was reading consciously to try to help with my other project. He’s a Dutch writer who has been compared to Sebald, and this book is a ruminative personal history that reaches out in all these different directions. I was just blown away by it. I’ve been carrying it around for a couple years; I’ve described my other project to a number of people, and every once in awhile someone will say, “Maybe this will help.” So it was one of those books. And I did some fun rereading this year as well – I reread Lolita for the first time in years a few weeks ago, and it was really extraordinary to return to that book. It was so interesting to see what I remembered clearly and what I didn’t, and the ways I reacted differently from the last time I read it.
So do you think for your next project you will try to return to that other novel, or do you think you’ll start something new?
I really don’t know! I had a conversation with my agent recently that got me excited about that project for the first time in awhile, but I’ve been so busy this fall that I haven’t even had a writing day in months. Part of me wants to at least return to the world of concerns I was trying to write about, but to start from scratch. I mean, it’s horrifying to think about starting the whole book from scratch, but I just want to start writing anew without looking at what I’ve already written. So if I ever have a day at my desk that doesn’t involve other tasks, which will hopefully happen sometime soon, that’s my plan!
This interview has been edited and condensed.